For the Want of a Home

Feb 5, 2012 by

For the Want of a Home

From Bronwyn Harris for Teaching Tolerance:

Like many of us, I sometimes overuse the word “need.” I have a tendency to say that I need the new iPhone or I need a pedicure, even though those are clearly things that I want, rather than need.

My greatest lesson on distinguishing between a want and a need came with my first-grade class when I was a new teacher. Volunteers from the business community came to teach for a day through the Junior Achievement program. As a new teacher, I was overwhelmed and relieved not to be responsible for lesson plans for the day. I was nervous, however, about how an idealistic businessperson would deal with 20 extremely needy first-graders living in one of the most violent parts of Oakland, Calif.

The woman who came was clearly unnerved to be in this neighborhood but collected herself quickly and taught in an enthusiastic and respectful manner. She went over the official Junior Achievement curriculum, which included basic map skills and identifying the different essential parts of a city. Then she got to “Needs versus Wants.”

I don’t remember exactly how it fit into the lesson as a whole, but I can still picture the images she used: cut-outs of an ice cream cone, roller skates, a house, a plate of food, a T-shirt, etc. The class was supposed to vote on whether each item was a “need” or a “want.” The picture was then taped to a board under the appropriate column. Some of the items were clear. Everyone agreed that while roller skates and bicycles were nice to have, they were definitely not necessities. Those items went on the “wants” side of the board.  Others required some explanation. Ice cream was supposed to be a want, as it’s a treat, but the plate of food represented food as a whole, which goes with the “needs.”

Our volunteer was happy with all the discussion and eventual decisions, until the kids got to the picture of the house. The class collectively decided it was a want. The guest teacher looked confused and then clarified that this image included apartments too.  The kids were still not sold: “That’s a want,” They said. The woman looked at her notes and clarified that it was supposed to be a need. “People need homes.”

A 6-year old saw her confusion and explained: “My uncle don’t have a home.  And he’s still alive.” Other kids started jumping in:

“My friend lives in a shelter, she don’t have a home.”

“Some of my family members are homeless.”

“My mama used to live on the street but when she had kids she moved to my auntie’s house.”

One after another, at least half the class shared their anecdotes about homelessness and they all agreed: Homes are a “want.”

This clearly did not fit with my guest’s script. These kids were young enough that most of them were not fully aware how the economy and homelessness were connected. While they didn’t like it, for them, this was a normal part of life. Homes were in the “wants” category.

The guest teacher talked to me after school and began to cry. She said that she had never thought about this kind of poverty in the Bay Area. She pointed out that none of the students “looked homeless.” They were all clean with nice clothes. She was also confused why I didn’t correct them – she thought they should know that homes were a need. I didn’t. I thought the kids had a point.

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